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Thai junta leader manoeuvres to stay in power

Sydney Morning Herald - January 4, 2018

Lindsay Murdoch, Bangkok A growing number of Thai politicians and analysts believe junta leader Prayuth Chan-ocha intends to stay in power after elections he has promised will be held later this year.

Three-and-a-half years after toppling a democratically elected government, Prayuth has admitted for the first time he now sees himself as a politician an occupation he has repeatedly belittled and blamed for Thailand's past problems and conflicts.

"I am no longer a soldier. Understood? I'm just a politician who used to be a soldier," he told reporters in Bangkok.

Thailand is one of several south-east Asian nations scheduled to hold elections this year. The ballots are likely to legitimise the consolidation of authoritarian power amid a backsliding of democracy and political freedoms across the region.
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Many Thai politicians, who have been prohibited from speaking out against the military regime and banned from organising political rallies, believe Prayuth wants to continue to rule through a military-backed party after the election promised for November.

They say a new Constitution and laws, written by the regime, weaken traditional politicians and strengthen emerging political parties, including possibly a new military party.

Key opposition figure Chaturon Chaisang, from the red-shirt Pheu Thai party, believes Prayuth is plotting to receive the support of at least 250 winning candidates to be voted prime minister, including from some in a new political party still to be registered.

Chaturon, a former education minister, said Thais now want an election to take place quickly but the regime is creating conditions to delay it. "Any further delay will only cause public dissatisfaction because things will boil down to abuse of power," he told the Bangkok Post.

As long-repressed Thai media outlets become more openly critical of the junta, Prayuth has indicated he does not intend to lift a ban on political gatherings of five people or more, which has been in place since the 2014 coup.

"From the security authorities' evaluation, the country is orderly to some extent," Prayuth said, adding this is because the junta still rules.

"If the ban is lifted, who knows what chaos will happen. An election can't be held if conflicts are severe again."

The junta recently pointed to the discovery of a weapons cache outside of Bangkok as justification for continuing its ban on political association.

The possibility of a soldier attempting to stay in power after mounting a coup is a sensitive issue in Thailand. Massive street protests erupted into bloodshed in 1992 when former coup-maker Suchinda Kraprayoon attempted to stay in power.

But Prayuth has attempted to portray himself as a leader who has brought happiness to the Thai people and appears almost every day in publicity stunts, which on one occasion involved throwing a banana peel at reporters.

He has recently distanced himself from controversy over his deputy Prawit Wongsuwan flouting expensive watches and jewellery, which some Thai media outlets said suggested undeclared wealth.

Since the 2014 coup, Thai authorities have targeted figures associated with the family of former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra. His his younger sister Yingluck fled overseas last year to avoid a five-year prison sentence after being found guilty of negligence in a case related to a failed rice subsidy scheme.

After the death of beloved King Bhumibol Adulyadej in October 2016 Prayuth has overseen an emotional monarchical transition and appears to have established a constructive working relationship with Vajiralongkorn, the new monarch.

But analysts say the military has failed to heal bitter political divisions as it has continued to entrench its role in politics and grow power through an increasing defence budget.

Elections are also due to be held this year in Malaysia, where Prime Minister Najib Razak has ruthlessly used state agencies to silence critics amid one of the world's largest corruption scandals.

In Cambodia, strongman Hun Sen has jailed opposition figures, attacked non-government-organisations and closed down critical media outlets ahead of mid-year elections.

Source: http://www.smh.com.au/world/thai-junta-leader-maneuvers-to-stay-in-power-20180104-h0delb.html.

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